RED SHIRTS by John Scalzi remains one of my all-time favorite books so if you’re looking for an unbiased recommendation then you’re probably looking in the wrong place. I have some issues with the novellas in the back of the book but I consider the main story to be damn near perfect. Mind you, I am exactly the sort of person who would love this book as both a Star Trek fan as well as a satirist. If you don’t think making fun of weird ideas in Star Trek and cliched storytelling would amuse you then this is probably not the book for you but it is entirely my jam.
The premise is the Universal Union capital ship Intrepid is a death trap. Well, sort of. Nothing bad ever happens to its bridge crew that they don’t bounce back from. Murderous alien worms, horrifying parasites, terrifying plagues, and encounters with hostile alien planets. However, the rest of the crew dies at a horrifying and often nonsensical rate. They do stupid things that get them killed despite being trained professionals on a spaceship. Sometimes even when they’re incredibly smart and careful, events contort themselves to killing at least one of them a mission.
This is not good news for Ensign Andrew Dahl who shows up for work on the Intrepid with three new friends, only to find this “minesweeper in Baghdad” level of attrition is just the tip of the iceberg for weird stuff going on board this vessel. There’s a weird black box that can solve virtually all scientific problems in exactly thirty minutes (no more, no less) that none of the crew actually understand the workings of. There’s a guy living in the ship’s maintenance ducts trying to warn them of the insane rules that mean the difference between life and death. Finally, and this is something even Andrew hesitates to mention, does it feel like this is all a rehash of a mid-20th century TV show?
Redshirts is a delightful deconstruction of the various cliches that authors rely on in genre fiction. It would be easy to describe this as Rosencratz and Guldenstern vs. Star Trek but then you’d have to know both of these works to get what I mean. More likely, Trek fans will probably think this resembles Galaxy Quest and Lower Decks, which is also true. But beyond a parody of Star Trek, it is also a critique of laziness in storytelling.
The humor doesn’t require you to have a degree in Trekology to laugh but does need to be you to be familiar with the concept of “The Red Shirt” which is a character that exists to die horribly in order to make dangers seem more real while not harming the main cast. This is a joke that was common enough to show up in the TV show Lost so it shouldn’t be too big of a demand of readers.
I love this book and its oddball character development as well as the investigation of the surreal circumstances around our heroes. Despite this, I do think the book has some flaws. The four leads are largely interchangeable and all pretty much sound identical in dialogue. Also, I wasn’t a big fan of the epilogues as I think they detracted from the strength of the book’s ending. Otherwise, this book is darn near perfect. You won’t regret its purchase.